Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The feng shui of innovation

Many organisations have begun integrating words from the language of innovation into their vocabularies.

It's increasingly common to hear terms like 'fail fast', 'lean', 'agile', 'prototype', 'user-centric design', 'discovery phase' and 'startup' used by both senior leaders and line staff when discussing the design of their services and development of IT solutions.

More organisations are announcing roles specifically focused on cultivating innovative ideas, and implementing systems and technology solutions to support innovation processes.

All of these steps, to a greater or lessor degree, help surface the innovative thinking already within these organisations. I've seen a number of cases where managers were positively surprised at the number and variety of innovative ideas they managed to uncover with a simple idea crowdsourcing process.

I find it predictable that organisations experience an initial flood of ideas once language, systems and permissions conducive to innovating are introduced into an organisation.
In many cases these were pre-existing ideas which had been bubbling away in the minds of people across various organisational nooks and crannies, laying dormant until there was an opportunity to be heard.

However once this initial surge of pent-up ideas has been spent, organisations will need to think carefully about how to foster and sustain a deeper ongoing innovation culture.

While permanently adapting the language, approvals and systems is a good start towards fostering long-term innovative behaviour, organisations should also closely consider the physical environments they create for their workers, and how their staff are equipped and organised to achieve business goals.

I call this the feng-shui of innovation.

Feng shui is a Chinese philosophical system for organising objects and spaces to generate positive flows of energy.

Good feng shui in a room or building supposedly leads to good fortune - making people more productive and energised, feeds money in (rather than out) and leads to greater success. Bad feng shui does the opposite - supposedly leading to ill fortune.

While people have varying views of the value and spiritual aspects of feng shui, the 3,000 year philosophy includes practical approaches that inform the architectural design of buildings and the arrangement of objects and spaces within them. The use of feng shui to create positive spaces remains widely applied throughout China and popular to some degree across the western world.

Regardless of the virtues or otherwise of feng shui practice, it is widely understood that how spaces are designed influences how people feel and interact within them. A space that is confined and crowded, with little natural light, tends to create a feeling of oppression, where as spacious, well lit environments can have people feeling that a weight has lifted off them.

This understanding has been widely applied in the fields of architecture and interior design to design spaces that create certain impressions. Churches have high ceilings deliberately to create a sense of reverence and respect, and supermarkets choose cluttered corridors to create an impression of being bargain priced and place impulse purchases at checkouts and the front of the store and staples at the back to increase sales.

Equally offices and other workplaces can be deliberately, or accidentally, designed and configured to support or discourage certain types of moods and behaviours. Research has found that people are less likely to collaborate if office partitions are high and around every desk, whereas having large common areas painted in relaxing colours with amenities like coffee machines encourages people to associate and share information.

Certain types of office environments are also likely to encourage or discourage innovative behaviours and organisations serious about innovation often create specific innovation spaces within their offices where staff can interact differently to at their regular desk.

I've seen some great examples of these types of spaces in co-working offices, in organisations like Google, Telstra, DFAT, the Digital Transformation Office and elsewhere, as well as in the premises of innovation specialists like EdgeLabs and ThinkSpace.

However in many cases these spaces sit on the 'edge' of the organisation. Only specific teams regularly access these spaces, with most staff spending the majority of their time in cubicle city and only occasionally being invited into these innovation spaces for a specific training or innovation session.

For organisations who wish to transform how all their staff behave, promoting top-to-bottom and end-to-end innovative thinking, having a discrete space people can go to is likely to have limited impact on the overall transformation effort.

While people spend most of their time in a specific space, they will adopt the thinking patterns best suited to that space - which may stymie innovation thinking.

So promoting innovative thinking can't end with language and systems, it has to take in the environments in which people are expected to work - how they are organised and the objects placed within them.

The opportunity for larger organisations is that they have a level of capability to test different office configurations to determine which layouts and approaches best support the organisation's innovation and other goals.

Rather than making every office space identical, they have the ability to AB test office spaces, iterating the design as they see the impact of different environments on the workday behaviour of staff.

This should be done in an above-board manner, with staff aware that the organisation is testing different layouts to determine which helps them be most effective and happy.

Taking this approach, treating the office environment as an ongoing experiment for improving productivity, would thereby allow larger organisations to apply and demonstrate their innovative thinking by applying it to improving innovative thinking.

Only by performing this form of 'feng shui of innovation' across their work environments, will large organisations embed the innovative thinking they wish to cultivate, right across their organisational structure.

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Friday, May 20, 2016

Celebrating the eighth birthday of eGovAU

Earlier this week I started getting LinkedIn messages of congratulations for my work anniversary (thanks to everyone who sent them).

When I checked, it was for my work on this blog, which is now eight years old.

That's decent for a blog lifespan, where the majority are abandoned within the first year.

Thank you to everyone who has read, contributed to, commented on, republished or shared my posts -  while most of the words in my blog are mine, its success is due to the thousands of people who have encouraged, critiqued and prompted me to keep writing on topics that, at times, are difficult to raise in other places and in other ways.

eGovernment and Government 2.0 are a journey, not a destination - as buzzwords including Digital Transformation, Social Government, Innovation demonstrate (a good caution on the use of buzzwords is here).

The end goal, always, is to serve citizens in the most effective ways, using the least quantity of resources possible (not simply money) in the process.

The Government 2.0 journey (whatever buzzword you prefer) is far from over.

Reflecting on technology from a human lifespan perspective, we're barely into the early adulthood of the public internet, barely into teens for social media, just started school for open data and just out of diapers for the cloud.

And those are just a few of the technology-driven innovations that are changing and evolving our societies, environments, governments and world.

We're yet to see the large-scale impact of technologies including 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and many others that have already been developed, let alone all the tech still behind closed doors or on the drawing board.

In the immortal words of Randy Bachman, "You ain't seen nothing yet"!

Here's a few statistics from the eGovAU blog to celebrate its anniversary...

Published posts: 1,581 (including this one!)
Draft posts: 60 (I like to keep a backlog, but some are half-finished and may never be published)

Pageviews all time: 1,693,550
This excludes syndication (automated republishing of my blog in other sites) and selective republishing in commercial and non-commercial publications. I estimate total pageviews is likely to be about 4x this figure from the other data I have (so around 7m views).

Pageview share by country (all time)
United Kingdom3.0%

Pageviews by browser (all time)
Internet Explorer27%

Top posts by pageviews (all time)
  1. Australian government Twitter accounts 
  2. What are Australian Government agencies using social media to achieve?
  3. It's nice to see government agencies share with each other
  4. GovHack 2013 - my top ten picks
  5. What the Facebook ruling from the Advertising Standards Board (that comments are ads) means for agencies
  6. Building a business case to move from IE6 to a modern web browser
  7. Are organisations failing in their use of social media and apps as customer service channels?
  8. Has Gov 2.0 in Australia got too boring too fast?
  9. Register now for BarCamp Canberra
  10. Sharing and comparing political party policies - developing an XML schema for party policies
  11. What impact will cyborgs have on government?
 Thanks for reading, and stick around - there's lots more to come!

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Thursday, May 19, 2016

Without risk there can be no innovation. But without innovation there is not no risk

It is fairly well understood - even embraced - in government today that without taking some risk there can be no innovation.

However it's important to keep in mind that the reverse of that statement is not true: without innovation there can be no risk.

Increasingly we're seeing government agencies take at least baby steps into supporting innovation processes and, to a lesser extent, behaviours among their staff - albeit within existing frameworks and constraints that were designed for stability rather than rapid change.

However there' still large and widespread pockets in government where innovation is seen as the enemy of good government. Where change is seen as an imposition on the 'natural order' and an external disruptive force that must be contested (actively or passively), rejected or endured until things return to normal.

What I don't see really grasped in government as yet is that rapid change is the new norm, that in a world where knowledge doubles every seven months and more data is collected each year than in the entire 20th century, that stability is now the riskiest proposition of all.

Yes change can be hard, uncomfortable and exhausting - but is this due to the process or actual change, or the deep-rooted culture, training and beliefs of those public servants who feel challenged, disempowered and exhausted?

We have selected and trained public servants for decades to love consistency and oppose rapid change, so even when they embrace change their subconscious impulses are to reject and resist - no wonder they find change confronting and tiring!

To change the relationship between the public service and innovation - paying lip service will not lead to the deep adaptations necessary to remake agencies as agile, change-ready innovative organisations.

Putting in place rigid (or even semi-elastic) processes and frameworks for innovation will deliver some peripheral benefits, particularly in non-core areas of agencies, but do not rapidly address the root issues agencies face with cultural resistance and inbuilt attitudes and behaviours that make change difficult to introduce, embed and retain.

Many senior public servants now speak about innovation, but their behaviours and attitudes do not match their words, and in many cases 'innovation' is now parroted as the mantra for the year, rather than being embedded in their hearts and minds.

I don't blame them for this, it is standard survival practice in any group for those in status positions to  retain their status by more enthusiastically adopting new fads and trends than those below them. The history of fashion - clothes, cars and toys - demonstrates that being a 'leader' (aka an early and enthusiastic adopter) brings status benefits in any group.

Even counter-cultural trends, think hipsters and contrarians, build status from the fashions of the day, by being the most enthusiastic at adopting the strongest anti-fashion position. In effect they are exalted for being 'an individual', defined as doing the reverse of whatever a fashion entails.

For innovation to become truly embedded in the public sector, for our government agencies to truly become agencies of change, agile and adaptable to a fast-paced world, we require far deeper culture change than the lip service and prototyping we see today.

Future public servants will need to find change a positive force, energizing and exciting - something they choose to engage with every day in order to continually improve how they serve governments and the public.

This cannot be achieved rapidly through a cautious, graduated process of slowly adopting innovative approaches, running a few ideas challenges or creating pockets of innovation (which I have previously called 'ghettos' which are carefully kept at armslength from the majority of agency staff and operations while agencies simultaneously hope they will infect the rest of the agency with their attitudes.

It can't be achieved while the public service retains and preserves the character, attitudes, culture and behaviours it expresses today. To me this also means it cannot be achieved with the majority of today's public sector leadership, who simply don't have the interest or capability to change themselves to embrace innovation and continual change as their core philosophy, in their hearts and minds.

Thus to achieve the real change necessary in the public sector, from 'change' being part of controlled, monitored, bounded projects to being core, business as usual, practice, behaviour and thinking,  there will need to be conflict, controversy, even 'blood in the corridors', where the old guard are largely replaced, rather than 'converted', taking stability mindsets with them.

Many public servants won't find this comfortable. Like most people they see themselves as capable of weathering any change, being adaptable and open to new ideas. Like most people (and I include myself in this), we are limited. We can only bend so far before we break or spring back to the core values we have embraced.

Change, at an individual or organisational level feels hard whenever it contradicts our beliefs, even when it is supported by evidence. The hardness reflect our subconscious fighting back, our mental defenses against a perspective or approach that is contrary to the beliefs we have constructed. We also have blind spots where we cannot see how our behaviour is limited - we see this regularly today in passive sexist and racism, in businesses that fail or are failing but can't see why (like Kodak and Australia Post). These blind spots are how our subconscious keeps us feeling safe, blinkers that hide unpleasant events or options from ourselves, warm safe bubbles got our minds, like offshore asylum seeker centres that allow us to place the pain and plight of unfortunate people out of our sight and thus out of our minds.

We will need public sector leaders who find innovative change less hard, maybe even easy, if we are to truly change agencies to better service a fast changing society. We need staff who have been normalized into an environment where continually change is the norm.

How we get there will involve tough decisions and risk - for without risk we cannot have real innovation.

However if you believe the reverse, that you can avoid risk by not innovating, you are, in my humble opinion, delusional. Stability within a fast changing society exposes organisations to even greater risks than does change.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Digital skills now essential across most government communications roles

Back in 2009 I predicted that government communications professionals only had about 10 years to gain social media skills or become unemployable.

At the time I received quite a bit of scoffing and pushback from senior communications professionals in government. They believed that digital wouldn't grow very fast and would remain a minor component in agency communications. I was told that I was "overblowing the value of social to government" and that their non-digital skills would remain valued for decades into the future.

I reiterated my prediction in 2014 - giving government communications professionals only five more years and broadening the prediction to digital communications skills.

This time the pushback was a lot less, though I still received comments from a few communications specialists. They told me that digital would remain a specialist area and that there would continue to be places across government for professional communicators who neither touched nor understood digital channels.

Recently I've been speaking with several recruiters in the government communications space and they're telling me my prediction was wrong - the change has happened faster than I had predicted.

They've told me that senior communications roles that don't require an understanding of digital or how to integrate digital with traditional communications channels in strategic ways, are now rare.

While digital specialists are still often grouped together in a specific 'Online' or 'Digital' team as a vertical area in communications, an understanding of digital is essential across all government communications officers - whether senior or junior.

As such I'm now calling it on this prediction - I was right about digital becoming an essential skill for communicators, but wrong about the timeframe, being too conservative in how long it would take agencies to embed digital at the heart of their communications. Rather than ten years, it took seven.

This clears the field for me to make a few new predictions.

For example, how long until other government professionals need to have strong digital skills to remain employable. For example I give HR officers two years, policy officers five years at most.

I also expect to see the slow death of dedicated Digital or Online Communications teams. These teams were originally created because digital was 'foreign' to most communicators. These teams required specialist skills and knowledge and, when originally created, worked at a different tempo to traditional communications teams.

However as digital skills become both universally held and required, Digital communication teams become unwanted bottlenecks, as they are split serving every other Comms team in an agency.

Also these teams remain unusual in that they are organised around a channel (online or digital) rather than around a functional goal - such as Corporate, Campaign or Internal communications. We saw the death of 'Television' and 'Radio' teams decades ago (yes they really existed). Even 'Print Publications' teams have disappeared in many agencies.

Therefore I expect to see the number of Digital communication teams slowly fall over the next ten years. They will be reabsorbed back into functional communications teams who now all possess the skills and knowledge that formerly was the domain of a few. Some specialist 'digital' roles will remain, but these will be connected to function, not channel - such as Engagement, Production, Analytics and Design.

So what does this mean if you are a digital communications specialist in government?

In my view you will have two choices.

Either become a hyperspecialist in a particular area of digital, such as analytics, engagement or crisis management, where specialist skills and experience will continue to be valued. You may end up becoming a freelancer, consultant or contractor, providing your expertise on-demand to agencies and other organisations where needed, or retain a role at a larger agency with limited opportunities for growth without stepping beyond your specialisation.

Or broaden your skills to become a strategic communications generalist, who can work across all communications mediums with a high degree of expertise and skill. These are the people who will be promoted in agencies and attract the best contracting and consulting rates, but there will be fierce competition as communications professionals from backgrounds other than digital compete for the same roles.

Time will tell if my new predictions are accurate, or if these changes occur faster or slower than I expect. What you can be sure of is that the communications landscape will continue to change.

Building skill in new mediums and platforms will not be wasted effort. Whereas standing still in the face of rapid change is always a risky proposition.

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Thursday, May 05, 2016

It's time to enter the Intranet & Digital Workplace Awards

I have just been alerted that Step Two's global Intranet & Digital Workplace Awards have just opened for nominations for 2016.

These awards have a long vintage and have recognised a stream of incredible work from companies, public sector agencies and not-for-profits for ten years, formerly with a specific focus on Intranets.

Even if you're not in a position to enter, it's worth checking out previous winners and nominees, who have demonstrated an incredible range of innovation and good practice in their intranet executions.

Nominations close on 10 June this year.

For more information (and to enter) visit

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